As the safari guide cruises across the African savannah, with wild cheetahs stalking gazelles and thousands of wildebeest amassing in huge herds, no one is looking for a finch-like bird. But after a few days one starts to wonder: what are all those grassy clumps in the trees?
Those are weaver nests.
Weavers are a large family of colorful songbirds similar to finches, and they are one of the most architecturally-talented birds on the planet.
There are 64 species in the Ploceidae family, found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. They do not migrate, living year-round in warm climates.
To learn more about the bird, visit Wikipedia Weaver Bird. You will see there are more than just 64 species from the Ploceidae family; additional weaver birds in other taxonomic families total 117 species.
The nest is built with grass found in the immediate vicinity. The males build the nests; females choose their mate based on the nest’s location, design, and comfort.
Typically bird nests are either open cups or hidden inside tree cavities. But not the weavers’. It is cylindrically shaped; with a narrow entrance hole usually facing downward to deter predators. In the African savannah, where predators abound and trees do not, the weavers have cleverly designed an enclosed grass clump hanging from a tree.
Named for their weaving abilities, the male uses only his feet and bill to weave the elaborate construction. First he tears grass blades and other materials into long strips, then he loops the initial strands onto the tree limb.
Next he intricately weaves the grass to form the hollow body; last, he creates the tubular entrance.
The weaver birds reside in many different countries, each with different habitats, so the building materials vary. Notice in the photos above, the dry grass around the Zambian village is reflected in the weaver nest built nearby.
Moreover, each weaver nest design is species-specific. I have included diagrams from my field guide (Birds of Kenya, by Zimmerman, Turner, Pearson, 1999) to demonstrate how consistent this is.
Number 1 in the first diagram, for example, belongs to the African Golden Weaver. Numbers 10a and 10b in the same diagram, each with dual parts, is home to the Spectacled Weaver. The tree in the second diagram, labeled 10a, shows multiple Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver nests.
The Sociable Weaver has the most elaborate nest of all. They are colonial nesters and build massive nests that can weigh up to a ton. One nest can have over a hundred pairs of nesting sociable weavers, and additionally host other non-weaver species concurrently. This nest is the largest built by any bird on earth.
Regardless of how many birds are occupying the nest, sometimes a pair only, there is a lot of color and chatter and acrobatics.
When we watch television documentaries about the African savannah, it looks like there’s an adrenaline-raising chase going on all the time. In reality, there are certainly moments like that, but often lions are sleeping during the day after a night of hunting; or there’s no action in sight. There are definitely lulls.
This is a good time to seek out the weavers. Because they never seem to stop and rest, they are busy with their home-building tasks always. And it’s no wonder–there’s a lot of weaving to be done.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.
For more Weaver info and photos: 10,000 Birds.